Landscape Architects Must Use Market Power to Push for Sustainable Materials

In the recent issue of Topos, an international landscape architecture journal, Craig Pocock, owner of a landscape architecture firm in New Zealand and former lecturer at Yale University, argues that landscape architecture comes with “avoidable” negative climate impacts which can be remedied if landscape architects use their collective buying power to steer material markets in a greener direction. He argues that each landscape architect currently produces an estimated 1,100 tons of carbon per year by specifying unsustainable materials. Additionally, the extra trees and plants added by a landscape architect over their career are “very unlikely to off-set the significant embodied energy of the materials specified within their work.” In the article, Pocock makes a startling statement: “If you consider the atmosphere an integral part of the environment that we design within, then as landscape architects our projects are consistently doing more environmental harm than good, even if a project is delivering best international practice in stormwater, community, and ecological design and planning.”

Pocock puts together some numbers on landscape architects’ carbon impact. Globally, there are 45,587 International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA)-certified landscape architects (and many more landscape designer-types who are uncertified). If landscape architects produce an average of 1,100 per year, then the global combined CO2 impact of IFLA membership is 50,145,700 tons annually. The number of trees required to off-set IFLA’s combined CO2 impact would be around 5 and half billion per year, requiring 18 million ha of new land per year. From these numbers, Pocock contends trees and plants will never “be able to off-set the much larger production of the typical landscape materials we use.” 

In the near-term, landscape architects must instead use their market position to influence the materials industry. Using New Zealand’s Institute of Landscape Architects’ membership, Pocock extrapolated and created a global estimate of the market buying power of landscape architects. Worldwide, there are 45,587 IFLA members, and the average economic value of landscape architects each year is around $475,000 (meaning, they specify this amount, on average, per year). This puts the total market place value of IFLA global membership at around $21 billion. Of this, Pocock estimates around $11 billion, or a little more than half of this, is spent on hard materials (featuring lots of embedded energy which produces CO2). So, clearly, landscape architects can help drive further market change.

He says IFLA and other global, regional, and national sustainable design advocacy organizations can play a leading role by encouraging dialogue with concrete, metals, plastics, cut stone, and timber manufacturers about the environmental impact of material production. One goal is to ensure products have clear environmental profiles so landscape architects can make wise purchasing decisions.

Pocock concludes “truly transparent carbon neutral landscapes” won’t be possible until sustainable materials are available to all landscape architects. To ensure this happens, landscape architects must lobby for stronger environmental regulations, climate change legislation, and sustainability education, but also use their market position to push for climate-friendly products. 

To add, widespread use of sustainable materials also won’t be possible without easy-to-use tools that facilitate the application of sustainable materials within projects. Check out the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a new rating system for landscapes, which gives credits for the reuse of salvaged materials and plants, recycled content materials, certified woods, regional materials, low-VOC paints and adhesives, sustainable practices in plant production, and sustainable practices in materials manufacturing. Also, learn more about sustainable materials through ASLA’s resource guide.

Image credit: ASLA 2009 Professional Honor Award. Pacific Cannery Lofts. Oakland, CA U.S.A. Miller Company Landscape Architects

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